School Policies and Law

Introduction

Schools and school districts teach not only through their class work, but also through their actions.  The best way to prevent gender identity/expression-based harassment is to make sure everyone knows that the system doesn’t allow it.  This happens by amending policies to explicitly state those protections and then educating staff and students about these changes.

Explicit policy language and administrative regulations are in the interest of all children, not just those seen as stepping outside gender expectations. Regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, many youth experience violence and harassment because they do not conform to gender-stereotypical behavior in their attire, interests, or mannerisms. Violations of these stereotypes and gender roles (which can be as innocuous as a boy who is more artistic than athletic) may cause harassment and victimization beginning long before a child is aware of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. A 1998 study of school counselors’ experiences with lesbian and gay students found that the majority of reported incidents of harassment targeted male students who acted “too feminine.” There is little dispute that school-age youth who identify as transgender, or who do not conform to gender-role stereotypes, are particularly vulnerable to harassment and violence in schools.

Finally, schools and districts that adopt strong language protecting the rights of all children regardless of gender presentation or identity, protect themselves from legal challenges or civil liability. Through clear policies addressing the safety needs of gender nonconforming students, and practices that publicly recognize and educate staff, students, and parents about them, schools and districts demonstrate a proactive stance in guaranteeing that all children remain safe at school. See Fifteen Expensive Reasons Why Safe Schools Legislation Is In Your State’s Best Interest

Model School Policy

Fortunately, school systems that wish to create strong policies protecting gender identity and expression do not have to start from scratch. Districts and schools throughout the country have made it clear to their school communities that all children, regardless of gender, will be safe at school. Leaders in these schools have spelled out in great detail what it looks like to create a truly gender inclusive climate on school campuses. In 2009, the California Safe Schools Coalition released a model policy for transgender and gender nonconforming students. This policy addresses the key areas that such policies must account for to ensure the safety of their gender nonconforming students. In addition, Gender Spectrum has written a Model Policy FAQ that helps school leaders implement the ideas mentioned in the model policy.

Bathrooms

On a day-to-day level, restrooms are one of the most important and pressing concerns for transgender students.  Indeed, a transgender focus group conducted by the Gay Straight Alliance Network found that among participants the lack of safe bathrooms was the biggest problem that gender non-conforming students face. Indeed, many parents and students report that the lack of access to restrooms is a major factor in a child’s decision to remain or drop out from school. This fundamental need is being recognized on an increasing basis and schools have an opportunity to address a significant safety issue in how they respond to gender nonconforming students’ bathroom access. See Restrooms and Schools for suggestions on how schools can respond to this question.

School Sports

One area that is particularly important to address with clear policies is athletics. The International Olympic Committee and some local and state policies explicitly address this important area. All young people should have the opportunity to play sports and have their personal dignity respected. Transgender young people are no different. In fact, because transgender young people often must overcome significant stigma and challenges, it would be particularly harmful to exclude them from the significant physical, mental and social benefits that young people gain by playing recreational sports. In contrast, permitting transgender children and youth to participate in sports in their affirmed gender can provide an enormous boost to their self-confidence and self-esteem and provide them with positive experiences that will help them in all other areas of their lives.

In late 2009, Transgender Law & Policy Institute released its long anticipated Guidelines for Creating Policies for Transgender Children in Recreational Sports that spells out in great detail ways in which school athletic associations can address this important area. For further analysis of this issue, see The Transgender Athlete.

Student Dress Codes

Students’ gender expression and identity is often inextricably linked to their choices of clothing. This fact, along with schools increasingly requiring school uniforms for all students, has brought questions about student dress codes front and center. In protecting students’ ability to authentically express their gender there are a number of factors to consider. Creating a gender inclusive school climate includes this important area of consideration. See Should Your School's Dress Code Address Transgender Students?  
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